You could smell it before you saw it. For weeks, pedestrians walking along the 700 block of Market Street — an area supposedly being revitalized to reconnect East Market with more vibrant areas of Center City — were greeted by the stench of two mattresses, left overnight by homeless people.
The problem pales compared with what residents endure daily in Kensington, where dozens of homeless people, many of them substance users, sleep underneath bridges to find shelter from the elements. But East Market, traversed daily by visitors to the historic district, deserves more respect than it is getting. For that matter, so do neighborhoods throughout the city — including but not limited to Kensington — that are bearing the burdens of the opioid addiction crisis and the resulting problem of homelessness.
The opioid epidemic has not only ruined lives and torn up families, but devastated neighborhoods in the city. The city struggled in the early days to respond. Last year, the city finally evicted those living in a makeshift encampment in the Gurney Street train gulch in Kensington. After that about 200 people simply set up camp underneath the train bridges on Lehigh Avenue.
The city on Thursday announced its plan to move them out by May 30. It’s a good plan, which includes locating a mobile medical unit at the site, opening two 40-bed shelters, and intensifying efforts to get all who are willing into drug treatment. The city will even store personal items for a month after the camps are cleared so their owners can retrieve them.
But it’s not enough. Efforts that are just as intensive need to occur in other areas, including Center City, where LOVE Park and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway have at times been convenient locations for homeless people to pitch their tents. To help address that problem, a Project HOME service center was opened this year at Suburban Station, using funds from the city, SEPTA, and private contributors.
That type of collaboration is essential. In California last year, the City of Sacramento and Sacramento County announced a $108 million, three-year plan to address homelessness and drug abuse. The county is providing $44 million, with $32 million in federal funds being matched dollar for dollar by the city and local hospitals, which makes sense, since addiction is a public health crisis.
That level of funding may not be necessary in Philadelphia. It isn’t experiencing the death of one homeless person per week, as Sacramento County did between 2002 and 2016. But this city can and should do more to help homeless substance users so they aren’t forced to camp out under bridges in Kensington or set out mattresses on Market Street.
Tolerance is admirable, but it shouldn’t override city officials’ responsibility to provide safe, sanitary environments for residents and inviting settings for visitors. In fact, many advocates say housing is the first step toward getting substance users to accept treatment and begin to rebuild their lives off the streets. More housing for homeless people must be part of the opioid solution. Now the city needs to figure out how to provide it.